RSF Association exploring legal options on SDG&E poles

Rancho Santa Fe residents are fighting back over SDG&E’s installation of 120 new overhead utility poles in the community, replacing 70 wooden poles with fire-resistant steel.

Resident Holly Manion said over 200 people have signed a petition to “adamantly oppose a permanent blight on state designated historic landscape” and advocate for the poles to be undergrounded.

“By far the best solution is to install the lines underground for maximum fire safety, as well as the aesthetics of this historic community,” the petition states.

As SDG&E began work in January, the Rancho Santa Fe Association board members echoed the dissatisfaction expressed by residents and is now exploring how they may be able to take action. At the board’s March 1 meeting, RSF Association President Fred Wasserman said they have approved engaging with a legal firm that specializes in dealing with utilities.

Wasserman said they are collecting information about what the Association’s rights are and if it is possible to get injunctions on property that they do not own. Counsel will research those issues and offer the Association an opinion on a variety of questions, such as if the Covenant being a historical district precludes a utility from putting in metal poles.

“The board is addressing it and we’re on top of it,” Wasserman assured concerned residents at the meeting. “There are a lot of questions we need answered, let us do that. We do agree that there is a serious problem, but how we deal with it is going to be tough.”

According to SDG&E, this project was in the planning process for two years. Wasserman stated that SDG&E representatives showed up to the June 2017 board meeting with only a “broad description” of what they planned to do, with construction set to begin about a month later. Wasserman said the information provided to the board was unclear, with two different pole counts and no information about where the poles would go as SDG&E said they were prohibited from sharing that information due to Department of Homeland Security laws.

“We challenged them at that meeting,” Wasserman said.

The board members stated their desires for the poles to be undergrounded and then-manager Bob Hall followed up with SDG&E representatives to express the Association’s concern “to no avail,” reporting back that it was unlikely that the Association would prevail in stopping the project.

Wasserman said the board even wrote a letter to the chairman of SDG&E’s parent company Sempra Energy, a resident of the Rancho Santa Fe community, but the chairman did not respond.

The current work is stage two of a three-phase project and more information will be presented at the conclusion of this second phase, which is expected to be completed by April. The map of pole locations is now available at the Association office for residents to view but the Association is not allowed to post it, nor are residents allowed to photograph or share it.

Wasserman said that there is a long history of Association boards addressing the some 1,500 poles that exist in the community.The Association does have a mechanism to underground poles at its own expense and, in 2010, the Community Service District (CSD) drafted a plan to underground utilities. The model included creating 39 districts in Rancho Santa Fe, with about 48 parcels each. Property owners within the district have to come together to submit a petition to the CSD which would then jumpstart an assessment engineers’ report and boundary map analysis—district residents would then vote on the project, knowing how much they would be assessed. The assessment amounts are weighed by how much individual property owners will benefit and assessments can be paid up front or over time on a property tax bill.

In 2010, the Association conducted an utility undergrounding interest survey— the results, which Wasserman reported, were not favorable. Of the people who had a line on or near their property, only 41 percent would be willing to participate.When asked if they would pay a fair share of an engineering assessment study (which at the time was about $2,000) 478 of 778 respondents answered no. Only 198 respondents said they were interested in participating in an assessment district.

Wasserman said that the undergrounding district model could still work in the Covenant today but there are conflicts.

“An owner with no poles on their property may not want to vote to be assessed because the assessment would affect all property owners in the district,” Wasserman said.

As the Association engages legal counsel on its rights with the current SDG&E project, Wasserman said next steps also include conducting an inventory of all poles and prioritization, developing a plan to address non-SDG&E poles, requesting that SDG&E screen its substation on Via de Santa Fe and insisting on improved communication with SDG&E. The Association’s research would also extend to determining whether there are poles on properties where there are no SDG&E easements.

During public comment, resident Suzy Schaefer said she had doubts that the Association could stop the existing project while others, such as resident Hal Baerg, urged the board to act quickly as “time is of the essence.”

“We can get this undergrounded if we think hard,” Baerg said. “You seem to realize that if safety is the issue, no judge is going to file an injunction. But there is a safer method than metal poles…let’s beat them at their own game, the safest way is underground. We just have to fight at this.”

Bareg said he was grateful for the board’s enthusiasm on the issue but asked: “How much longer are you going to stand back and say you’re investigating?”

In answering, Director Mike Gallagher said that taking on a major utility is a major task and they want to make sure they do it right in order to be successful.

“What you are asking, ‘Is this important to the board?’ and ‘Is there a sense of urgency?’, and the answer is definitely, we are all engaged and want to see this resolved,” Gallagher said.

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